In March this year, when Mariyappan Thangavelu cleared a distance of 1.78m in the men's high jump T42 event at the IPC Grand Prix in Tunisia, he comfortably achieved the A-Qualification Standard of 1.60 for the Rio Paralympics.
At last year’s World Championships in Doha, Sam Grewe’s gold-medal-winning jump was measured at 1.81m, while Egypt’s Hamada Hassan needed 1.78 to take the silver.
It has given 20-year-old Mariyappan the belief that he has a real shot at a medal in Rio this September, should he go there. “It is not beyond me,” he says. “Even a gold is possible.”
Until a couple of years ago, though, his outlook on life was a whole lot bleaker. Mariyappan was five when an accident in his village of Periavadagampatti, some 50km from Salem, left him with a permanent disability. Mariyappan was on his way to school when a bus swerved dangerously off the road and ran over his right leg, crushing it below the knee.
“I was told the driver was inebriated,” he says. “It doesn’t matter. My right leg is now stunted — it is still a five-year-old’s leg; it has never grown or healed.” His mother, who now sells vegetables to make a living, took out a loan of Rs. 3 lakh for his medical treatment. “We’re still paying it off,” he says. “Life is hard but we’re somehow getting by.”
Mariyappan liked volleyball, though, and played the sport in school despite his condition. His P.E. master asked him to try his hand at high jump, and in his first competitive event (against able-bodied athletes), aged 14, Mariyappan finished second. “I didn’t see myself as different from able-bodied kids,” he says.Lot of support
“At first, my classmates didn't believe I could do it. But once I made that first jump, they were all excited. After that day, a lot of people came to support me whenever I competed in the district.” Mariyappan points to his deformed right big toe — misshapen and noticeably large. “This is what gives me leverage when I jump,” he says. “It is my God.”
Mariyappan’s coach, Satyanarayana, first spotted him at the National para-athletics championships of 2013 and two years later took him under his wing, bringing him to Bengaluru for training. “Rio is my immediate goal,” Mariyappan says.
“After that, I want to find a good job and take care of my mother.”
All his dreams, however, are incumbent on India being permitted to compete at the Paralympic Games, for the Paralympic Committee of India is currently suspended.
"Currently the National Paralympic Committee of India has not secured any quota places for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in any event, because they are suspended," Craig Spence, Communications and Media Director of the International Paralympic Committee, told The Hindu via e-mail.
“Should the suspension be lifted, or an alternative found, then two athletes have achieved the A Qualification Standard in men’s high jump T42 (Mariyappan and Varun Singh Bhati) to secure slots for their country.”